Easter island

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Easter Island
Rapa Nui
Isla de Pascua
Easter Island Uebersicht.jpg
Waters Pacific Ocean
Geographical location 27 ° 7 ′  S , 109 ° 21 ′  W Coordinates: 27 ° 7 ′  S , 109 ° 21 ′  W
Location of Easter Island Rapa Nui Isla de Pascua
length 24 km
width 13 km
surface 162.5 km²
Highest elevation Maunga Terevaka
507.41  m
Residents 5806 (2012)
36 inhabitants / km²
main place Hanga Roa
Easter Island map
Easter Island map

The Easter Island ( Spanish Isla de Pascua , rapanui Rapa Nui ) is an isolated island located in the South, the politically Chile belongs, geographically but to Polynesia . It is located south of the Tropic of Capricorn . The main town Hanga Roa is 3526 km from the Chilean coast (or 3833 km to the east to the coast) and 4251 km from Tahiti . The closest inhabited island is Pitcairn to the west, at a distance of 2078 kilometers. In 2017, according to the census, 7,750 people lived on Easter Island.

The island is best known for its monumental stone sculptures, the moai . Since 1995, Easter Island has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage as the Rapa Nui National Park .



Location of Easter Island

Easter Island is a volcanic peak that sits on the Salas-y-Gómez Ridge , a 2500 km long submarine mountain range in the Southeast Pacific. Along with the island of Salas y Gómez , it is the only mountain in this sub-ocean chain consisting of numerous volcanoes that protrudes above the surface of the sea.

The coral reef that is characteristic of many Pacific islands is missing, the coast drops steeply to a depth of 3000 meters. The coastline is stony and rugged, small sandy beaches can only be found in a few places, for example in Anakena Bay on the north coast. On the south-western tip and in the east, on the Poike peninsula , steep cliffs up to 300 m high rise up.

Easter Island is roughly in the shape of a right triangle with a maximum length of 24 km, a maximum width of 13 km and an area of ​​162.5 km². The landscape is characterized by its volcanic origin and consists essentially of the three volcanoes Rano Kao in the southwest, the Poike with its main peak Maunga Puakatiki in the east and Maunga Terevaka in the north and their over 70 secondary craters, some of which have been eroded beyond recognition. At 507.41 meters, the Maunga Terevaka is the highest point on Easter Island. The volcanoes have long been extinct, no recent activities have been observed, nor have they been handed down in legends and myths.

In the southwest of Easter Island are the small, uninhabited side islands Motu Nui (3.9  ha ), Motu Iti (1.6 ha) and Motu Kau Kau (0.1 ha), in the west Motu Ko Hepoko (0.1 ha) and Motu Tautara (0.1 ha), and off the Poike Peninsula Motu Marotiri (0.2 ha).


The climate is subtropical and warm, the seasons are not very pronounced. Strong trade winds prevail. The rainfall is about 1150 mm per year. The annual average temperature is 21 ° C. The coldest months are July and August, the warmest January and February. The rainiest months are April and May, the least rainy October, November and February. The average water temperature is 18 ° C.

Mataveri (Easter Island)
Climate diagram
J F. M. A. M. J J A. S. O N D.
Temperature in ° Cprecipitation in mm
Source: wetterkontor.de
Monthly average temperatures and rainfall for Mataveri (Easter Island)
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Max. Temperature ( ° C ) 27.0 27.7 27.1 25.6 23.8 22.4 21.7 21.5 22.1 22.9 24.2 25.5 O 24.3
Min. Temperature (° C) 19.2 19.7 19.3 18.1 17.0 15.5 14.8 14.6 14.6 15.1 16.3 18.0 O 16.8
Precipitation ( mm ) 73 85 96 121 153 106 105 94 87 68 74 86 Σ 1,148
Hours of sunshine ( h / d ) 8.8 8.0 7.1 6.1 5.4 4.6 4.8 5.4 6.1 7.2 7.6 8.0 O 6.6
Rainy days ( d ) 15th 7th 16 15th 12 16 12 9 14th 6th 9 9 Σ 140
Water temperature (° C) 24 24 25th 23 22nd 20th 20th 20th 20th 21st 22nd 23 O 22nd
Humidity ( % ) 77 79 79 81 81 81 81 80 79 77 77 78 O 79.2
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Source: wetterkontor.de

Climate change

Like most of the Pacific Islands, Easter Island has been affected by the effects of global climate change . A study by Karnauskas et al. (2016) in the journal Nature Climate Change found that advancing climate change could lead to a threatening drought on the island by 2090.

However, drastic climate changes in the Southeast Pacific are not a new phenomenon. In the past 35,000 years, as can be concluded from palynological studies, the climate of Easter Island was not always the same as it is today. This had a decisive impact on the vegetation. The climate around 35,000 years ago was warm and dry and encouraged herbaceous vegetation. From 35,000 to 26,000 BC, there was a wetter and significantly warmer period that allowed dense palm forests and bushy vegetation to flourish. Then, until about 12,000 BC. BC, it cooled down and it became drier again, which reduced the growth of forests and favored the development of grasslands. From 12,000 BC Until the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers, the palm forests recovered and formed dense stands again. Around 4500 BC BC, even before human settlement, there seems to have been a dry period of several years, because sediment samples show that the crater lake of the Rano Raraku had dried up around this time.

The climatic changes were not without consequences for the people of Easter Island. University of New South Wales anthropologist Grant McCall believes that persistent droughts were far more common in the Little Ice Age than they are today. Sediment samples from the Rano Kao crater have confirmed a dry spell around 1466 AD. McCall concludes that climate change during the Little Ice Age was partly responsible for the destabilization and upheaval of society in the 17th century. The increasingly difficult living conditions could have contributed to dissatisfaction, unrest and thus to social change.


Easter Island is one of the most biodiverse islands in the South Pacific. Less than 30 indigenous seed plants (Spermatophyta) are known. This is mainly a consequence of the isolated situation; the island was never connected to a continental land mass. Birds, wind and ocean currents could only bring in seeds to a far lesser extent than on other islands .

The most successful transmitter of plant material should therefore have been humans. As the legend of Hotu Matua tells us , the first settlers brought crops to the island . Numerous crops already existed before the Europeans reached the island, as several reports - for example from Roggeveen , Forster and other early explorers - can be inferred. These included, for example: paper mulberry , sweet potato , yams and taro . But the Europeans also made extensive use of plants, for example various types of grass as pasture plants for the sheep and cattle.

The vegetation prevailing today does not correspond to the original. It is the result of massive human interference in the ecosystem . Archaeobotanical evidence shows that the island was once densely covered with palm forests of a species closely related to the honey palm ( Jubaea chilensis ). In samples from Rano Kao it was shown that deforestation took place over a longer period from the year 1010 (± 70 years).

It is estimated that more than ten million palm trees were felled on the island during this period. The loss of the palm forest, which had protected the cultivated plants from the constantly blowing wind and from drying out, led to extensive soil erosion , which in turn was likely to have had a decisive impact on the food supply and thus on the rapid decline in the population.

The Totora reeds ( Scirpus californicus ) are preserved as remnants of the original vegetation in the crater lakes of the Rano-Kao and Rano Raraku . Totora reeds were used in a variety of ways by the natives, for example to build the characteristic boat-shaped houses ( paenga house ).

Of great ritual importance was the toromiro ( Sophora toromiro ), a butterfly family that died out in the wild . The hard and fine-pored wood was used in a variety of ways, especially for cult carvings. Specimens of this endemic tree species have only survived in botanical gardens (for example: Gothenburg , Bonn , London , Valparaíso ).

The small number of ferns is striking . Only 15 species were discovered, four of them - Diplazium fuenzalidae , Doodia paschalis , Elaphoglossum skottsbergii and Polystichum fuentesii - are endemic. The latter was only collected once in 1911 and is believed to be extinct. Compared to other islands in the South Pacific (for example Marquesas with 27 families, 55 genera and 117 species of ferns) this is very little.

Another indigenous plant, which only occurs in a few specimens as a small bush on Easter Island, is the Triumfetta semitriloba , which belongs to the linden family (Tiliaceae) . Pollen analyzes have shown that the plant has been growing on the island for 35,000 years. The Rapanui used the specially treated fibers of the bark to tie their fishing nets and possibly the transport ropes for the moai.

Today the landscape of Easter Island is predominantly characterized by extensive grassy areas. The most common plant families are those of the sweet grasses (Poaceae), of which only four species are indigenous, and those of the sour grass family (Cyperaceae). Another common family of plants is that of the Asteraceae , whose species found today are exclusively anthropochoric plants.
Man-introduced guava bushes have spread over larger areas in the southwest . In recent years there has been reforestation with eucalyptus . A palm grove with the coconut palm, which was not originally found on the island , has been created near Anakena . Today, sweet potatoes , taro, yams, sugar cane and subtropical fruits are grown as crops for personal use .

A very important food crop, often prepared in an earth oven (umu) , is the sweet potato , which originally comes from Central America . It has been widespread in the entire South Pacific and in the South Asian region for centuries. Bottle gourd , vegetable and hot peppers are other South American plants that now grow on Easter Island.

Deep bed (manavai) with banana plantations

According to reports from European explorers, the cultivation of crops in historical times took place in carefully tilled and delimited fields. La Pérouse estimated in 1787 that around a tenth of the island, especially the lower areas of the coastal region, was cultivated with crops. This approximately 20 km² of cultivation area would be enough to feed a population of several thousand people. The agriculture was carried out with the simplest method, the digging stick or, due to lack of wood, with an appropriately prepared stone.

Numerous lava tubes run through the volcanic soil of Easter Island . Due to erosion, the ceiling collapsed in some places, so that doline-like crevices formed, which were gradually filled with humus . Since the constantly blowing winds made it difficult to grow food crops, the depressions were used as high-yielding deep beds below the ground level (manavai) for the cultivation of larger plants, especially bananas . Some are still in use today, for example near the Vinapu plant.


Human interventions were also not without consequences for the fauna. Archaeological digs show that before the Polynesian settlement, 25 species of sea and 6 species of land birds were native to Easter Island. Of these, only three sea bird species and four land bird species remain on the island itself (without an upstream motus), none of them indigenous or endemic.

Of the mammals, only imported domestic animals -  horses , sheep , cattle , pigs  - are found. The released horses have now become a problem. They spread the guava bushes by eating the fruit and excreting the seeds elsewhere. In addition, they rub against the statues that have been left lying around and thus encourage gradual erosion. The Pacific rat ( Rattus exulans ), which was probably brought along by the first settlers as a food animal, has now become extinct or has been displaced by European rat species. On Easter Island there are no animals that are directly dangerous to humans or carriers of infectious diseases .

Moko, Cryptoblepharus poecilopleurus , as a carved anthropomorphic figure

Among the reptiles , the skink Cryptoblepharus poecilopleurus is worth mentioning. Its name in Rapanui is moko uri uri . The approximately 12 cm long animal of golden brown color apparently enjoyed religious veneration, as several anthropomorphic figures carefully carved from Toromiro wood have been preserved as ceremonial objects (e.g. Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels).

Numerous seabirds nest on the offshore motus, including frigate birds , shearwaters , gannets as well as black and fairy terns .

No coral fringes formed on the steeply sloping lava base . The diverse ecosystem of a coral sea with its species-rich population of marine life could not develop. 164 fish species have been counted in the area around Easter Island, 107 of them are coastal fish. That is comparatively little; there are more than 1,000 species of fish in the waters around the Fiji islands. James Cook wrote about this in his logbook:

"The sea seems to have been freed of fish, we couldn't catch a single one, and there were only very few that we discovered among the natives."

- James Cook : Logs of the journeys 1768–1779

The relative poverty of species could have been one of the reasons for the population decline and the associated cultural decline on Easter Island.

It is not uncommon to see sperm whales . It is believed that the giant squid also occurs in the depths . The deep sea has the densest known concentration of black smokers to date , active volcanic chimneys from which hot, mineral-rich water gushes from the interior of the earth and around which bizarre communities have formed. In 2005, a new species was discovered 1500 km south of Easter Island, the so-called Yeti Crab (Kiwa hirsuta).

Of particular interest is an endemic species of cowrie shell , the Erosaria englerti named after Father Englert , which only occurs off Easter Island and the uninhabited island of Salas y Gómez , 400 km to the east.



Cultural scheme for Easter Island
Traditional tribal areas map

The early history of Easter Island is difficult to reconstruct as there are no written records. The history of settlement is already controversial. Both a mono- and a multi-settlement thesis were advocated.

Thor Heyerdahl postulated an early period in the history of the island in the 1st millennium AD and a middle period between 1100 and 1600 AD. In both periods, in his opinion, there was immigration from South America . Another settlement from Polynesia is said to have taken place in the late period from 1680 . This theory was not tenable for long.

Based on the legend of Hotu Matua and based on archaeological , genealogical and linguistic findings, the assumption of a settlement in the context of the Polynesian expansion from the west was popular for a long time . It is said to have occurred relatively late in two waves: the first settlement in the 5th or 6th century, the second settlement in the 14th century. Today it is generally accepted in anthropology that Easter Island was settled from the west, as part of the Polynesian migration, with only one wave of settlements from the greater Mangareva , Henderson , Pitcairn area . Modern genetic research provided the proof in the 1990s. Erika Hagelberg from the University of Cambridge examined the mitochondrial DNA ( mtDNA ) of twelve skulls that came from graves in Ahu Vinapu and Ahu Tepeu and were in the depot of the Natural History Museum in Santiago de Chile . The comparison with the mtDNA of historical bone finds from other Polynesian settled islands on the one hand and with that of South American peoples on the other hand undoubtedly proved the Polynesian ancestry of the Rapanui. There was also no evidence of a further gene transfer , for example caused by a second wave of settlements from South America and mixing with the indigenous population, as Thor Heyerdahl had suspected in later years. When the initial settlement took place is controversial, but since Easter Island is on the very edge of the Polynesian Triangle, one can assume that it was settled relatively late. Linguistic comparisons have shown that the Rapanui has split off from the eastern subgroup of the Protopolynesian language family. After the split-off, settlement in the first millennium AD can be assumed. Based on palynological investigations on the Rano Kao , it can be assumed that interventions in the ecology of the island, which could be caused by humans, are by no means to be set earlier than 500 AD. The earliest date determined so far using the radiocarbon method that could be associated with construction activity and thus an already established civilization is the year 690 AD (± 130 years). Radiocarbon dates in a time window from 800 to 1000 AD are far more common, they are also more widely spread and occur both in ceremonial complexes and in settlement remains. The anthropologist Terry L. Hunt from the University of Hawaii assumes - based on stratigraphic excavations near Anakena - that the initial settlement of Easter Island did not take place until around 1200 AD.

In the meantime there are further genetic studies that confirm the origin of the Rapanui from the Polynesian settlement area. However, they show DNA of American (or European) origin in a very small percentage of the samples examined. These investigations are based on taking blood from living Rapanui. Even with a careful selection of the test subjects, they only prove the current situation and not the conditions in pre-European times. Accordingly, this result also ultimately corroborates the previous knowledge about the Polynesian origin of the Rapanui, because the Y chromosome markers typical for Polynesians could be detected in each of the samples. The theory that the peoples of the American continent settled Easter Island can be refuted with the help of modern genetic research. However, evidence of genetic traces of American origin allows that contact between the continent and Easter Island could have existed in pre-European times, but probably only as an occasional or even one-off event. The spread of the sweet potato as the main food on Easter Island makes contacts between Polynesia and the continent seem possible. The sweet potato originally comes from South America. It was (and is) a common food crop in the arid regions of South America from the Gulf of Guayaquil to central Chile. The tuber does not survive a long stay in sea water, so that natural transport by wind and waves to Easter Island is ruled out. It can only have got there with the help of humans. The cultivation of the kumara on Easter Island has long been regarded as evidence of the first colonization of the continent. However, this is contradicted by the fact that it also occurs on other Polynesian islands, which are far from South America and undoubtedly were not colonized from there. It is believed that the sweet potato was first introduced to the Greater Cook Islands, Society Islands, and Marquesas. It appears in this region as early as 1000 AD. Between 1000 and 1200 AD, the sweet potato is also widespread in the peripheral regions of the Polynesian Triangle, in New Zealand and Hawaii. It is noteworthy that the plant, but not the cultivation technique, was imported into Polynesia. South American peoples originally cultivated the potato in artificially irrigated fields or in piled hills with added humus, a kind of raised bed, but the Polynesians in pits. Such planting pits near Te Niu on the northwest coast of Easter Island date back to the 13th century AD. However, it cannot be ruled out that the first settlers brought the sweet potato with them from another Polynesian island.

Early history

A strictly stratified society developed with ten independent tribes (máta) associated with different parts of the island, although there were no defined boundaries. Initially only the coastal region was settled. From around 1100 AD the construction of large-scale structures began, the ceremonial platforms ( ahu ) , the stone statues ( moai ) , cisterns and observation towers (turtle towers) . This period of cultivation lasted until the middle of the 17th century, with increasing signs of degeneration becoming apparent towards the end of the period:

  • After the soil was cultivated in a way that was gentle on the surface up to the end of the 13th century, radical deforestation with increasing soil erosion has been proven from 1300 AD at the latest. This led to the abandonment of settlements and the construction of large canoes that could be used to fish offshore,
  • From the 13th century, the interior of the island was also increasingly populated without access to the sea, an important food source.
  • After 1425, a highly intensified cultivation using innovative possibilities (small cultivation areas protected by walls, stone mulch ) can be observed, but this was given up again with the collapse of the tribal society in the first half of the 17th century.
  • From around 1500 until the arrival of the Europeans, there were increased attacks and tribal wars using new types of weapons ( mata'a = short spears with sharp obsidian points). Cannibalism is also likely spreading . The warrior caste is gaining influence.
  • As can be seen from archaeo-biological studies of waste heaps in the settlements, the number and biodiversity of seabirds as a source of food decreases rapidly after 1650 AD. Instead, stone chicken coops are increasingly being built.
  • From the middle of the 17th century, the construction of monumental sculptures came to a standstill.
  • From the end of the 17th, at the latest in the first half of the 18th century, the cult platforms are systematically destroyed by the islanders themselves and the statues are overturned. The traditional culture based on ancestor worship is completely decaying.

It is hotly debated where the roots of this cultural decline are to be found, but the majority of researchers now believe that the problems were caused by the islanders themselves. The thesis published by Jared Diamond of the overexploitation of natural resources, which has led to the disruption of the ecological balance on the isolated island, is popular.

Other theories assume that - to varying degrees - other effects were wholly or partially causes for the decline of Easter Island culture, such as: a drought lasting several years , the Little Ice Age , the Polynesian rat introduced by the first settlers , the European influence on the Culture or a tribal or religious war .

20 Once inhabited districts along the shore:
Ahutepeu (Ahu Tepeu)
Maitakitemoa (Maitaki-te-moa)
Hanga Koonu
Hotuiti (Hotuiti)

European influence

Satellite image
Easter Island at Hanga Roa

The first European to see the Easter Island was probably the pirate Edward Davis , who with his ship Bachelors Delight in 1687 from the Galapagos Islands Coming Cape Horn wanted to sail around. He spotted the island by chance and believed to have found the fabulous southern continent , but did not land.

Easter Island got its current name from the Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen , who landed there on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, with three ships on behalf of the West Indian Trade Company . He called it Paasch-Eyland , which corresponds to the German name Easter Island - after the day it was discovered. Carl Friedrich Behrens from Mecklenburg took part in the expedition , whose report , published in Leipzig , drew Europe's attention to the previously unknown island.

The Catalan Manuel d'Amat i de Junyent , governor of Chile and viceroy of Peru , sought to consolidate the influence of Spain in South America (against England) and to expand it to Oceania . He commissioned Don Felipe González to sail as far as the Strait of Magellan and thereby u. a. annex the "Earth Davis" for the Spanish Crown. González landed on November 15, 1770 with the liner San Lorenzo and the frigate Santa Rosalia on Easter Island, erected several crosses at prominent points as a sign of the Spanish claim and gave it the name San Carlos . However, in the following years Spain lost interest in Amat's oceanic visions and did not renew its claim to Easter Island.

During his second South Sea expedition, James Cook visited Easter Island from March 13th to 17th, 1774. He was not enthusiastic about the island and wrote in his logbook:

"No nation will ever fight for the honor of having explored Easter Island, especially since there is hardly any other island in the sea that offers fewer refreshments and amenities for navigation than this one."

- James Cook : Logs of the journeys 1768–1779

Nevertheless, the stay brought essential knowledge about the geological condition, the vegetation, the population and the statues (most of which were already overturned). We owe it to the German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Johann Georg Adam Forster , who took part in the Cook Expedition. Reinhold Forster also made the first sketches of the Moais, which, published as copper engravings in the romantic exaggeration typical of the time, caused a sensation in the salons.

In 1786 the French Count Jean-François de La Pérouse landed on Easter Island. As part of his circumnavigation of the world by Louis XVI. the order to draw precise maps and to contribute to the formation of the French heir to the throne ( Dauphin ) by researching the peoples of the South Seas .

The diseases brought in by the European explorers, such as flu and syphilis, caused a steady population decline on Easter Island.

In 1862, Peruvian Blackbirds raided the island in search of cheap labor. Within two years, 1,400 islanders (34% of the estimated population) were abducted to haciendas in Peru, where many died of infectious diseases in the unfamiliar climate. When fifteen survivors were allowed to return to Easter Island under international pressure, they introduced smallpox . Most of the population died from the epidemic; In 1864 about 150 islanders were still alive.

In 1866 the Frenchman Jean Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier, a former French officer who had moved to Tahiti after the Crimean War, came to Easter Island with his British-Tahitian business partner John Brander . In the following years, the two large estates took over from the chiefs and established a reign of terror. The islanders were driven from their settlements and were assigned a small area on the west coast (in the area of ​​today's Hangaroa), which they were not allowed to leave under threat of punishment. The rest of the island became pastureland for sheep and cattle. When the situation finally became unbearable, the islanders murdered the despot Dutroux-Bornier in 1876, and Brander died of natural causes a year later. The island remained in the possession of the Brander family after a lengthy legal battle between the heirs in French courts.

In 1877 only 111 people lived on the island.

From September 20 to 25, 1882, the German gunboat SMS Hyäne visited Easter Island as part of an extensive South Sea expedition. Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Geiseler was commissioned by the Imperial Admiralty to carry out scientific studies for the ethnological department of the Royal Prussian museums in Berlin. The expedition delivered u. a. Detailed descriptions of the customs and traditions, language and writing on Easter Island, as well as exact drawings of various cult objects, moais, house floor plans and a detailed map of the Orongo cult site .

The first photos of the Moais were taken by ship doctor William Thomson, who visited Easter Island in 1886 on board the US ship Mohican .

Since the annexation by Chile

Against the background of its territorial, economic and military expansion in the second half of the 19th century , the Republic of Chile annexed the island on September 9, 1888. The Chilean government had followed the suggestion of Corvette Captain Policarpo Toro (1856–1921), who from the Experience of the Saltpeter War believed it was of strategic value as a naval base and supply base. A treaty was signed in Spanish and Polynesian that Toro and 20 tribal chiefs signed on board the warship Angamos . The reason for the conclusion of the contract was the expectation of the Rapanui to be able to defend themselves better against attacks with the help of the Chilean government.

In 1895 the Chilean government leased the island to businessman Enrique Merlet, who continued to raise cattle . In 1903 he sold his ownership claims to the British trading house Williamson-Balfour. In 1911 a scientific commission headed by the German-Chilean Walter Knoche reached the island in order to set up a meteorological and seismic station and for the first time to conduct interdisciplinary biological , ethnological and archaeological research.

The various European visitors, but especially the returnees from Peruvian slavery, brought infectious diseases to the island, which spread rapidly and decimated the population. From around 1900, leprosy , presumably introduced from Tahiti, also spread to Easter Island. A leper colony was therefore built away from Hangaroa , in which - according to the residents - the company also isolated people who were unpopular and who first contracted the disease there.

During the First World War , the island played a not insignificant role in naval warfare . Coming from Tahiti, a squadron met with the armored cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau , the small cruiser SMS Leipzig and escort ships with transport ships coming from the Atlantic to take over fuel and food. The stay in front of the island lasted from October 12 to 19, 1914. On December 23, 1914, the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich sank the French merchant ship Jean directly in front of the Bay of Hangaroa. The crew of the sunk ship was left behind on the island. When the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Seeadler of the "sea devil" Felix Graf von Luckner sank off Mopelia ( Society Islands ) in 1917 , the crew sailed to Easter Island on the captured British ship Fortuna . The ship drifted onto the cliffs while attempting to land and sank. The crew escaped to the island and lived there for four months until they were finally interned in neutral Chile.

When Angata, an elderly Easter Islander who was said to be gifted with vision , dreamed in 1914 that God had given the entire island back to the Rapanui, an uprising broke out. The islanders no longer wanted to accept that they were not allowed to enter most of the island. When Angata also claimed that God had made the insurgents bulletproof and therefore nothing could happen to them, the conflict escalated.
The uprising was ended by the deployment of a Chilean warship, but its commander recognized the intolerable conditions and criticized the management of the sheep farm. The spatial restrictions did not change, but the government appointed an administrator independent of the company.

Chilean martial law prevailed on the island until 1967 . The island's residents were subject to a restrictive military administration headed by a military governor appointed by Chile. Although Chilean citizens, the islanders were not entitled to a Chilean passport and were not allowed to leave Easter Island. Their stay was limited to a fenced and guarded area around Hangaroa, the rest of the island could only be entered with the permission of the governor. Independent, democratic structures in the local administration were only allowed in the late 1960s.

As part of a research project at the University of Chile, the Capuchin Father Sebastian Englert of German descent came to Easter Island in 1935 . He stayed there as a pastor until his death on a lecture tour in 1969. Father Englert saw his task not only in proselytizing, he also took care of social issues, health care and education of the islanders. Significant records of archaeological, linguistic, cultural-historical and botanical findings can be traced back to the many interested parties . His systematic collection of artifacts today forms the basis of the museum in Hanga Roa named after him .

There were several research expeditions to Easter Island in the first half of the 20th century. Noteworthy researchers are the English Katherine Routledge , the French Alfred Métraux and the German Thomas Barthel from the Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen , who found the essential approaches to decipher the mysterious Easter Island script.

Thor Heyerdahl stayed on Easter Island from 1955 to 1956. He carried out excavations and practical experiments and set up the first moai again.

On May 22, 1960, the Valdivia earthquake , which had a magnitude of 9.5, devastated the city ​​of Valdivia on mainland Chile. The quake triggered a tsunami that hit the south coast of Easter Island and completely destroyed Ahu Tongariki, which had only been restored a few years earlier. The heavy moai were hurled more than 100 meters inland. With Japanese support, the damage was repaired in the following years, so that the system is now back in its original condition.

In 1967/68 the US military set up a secret listening station at Rano Kao. With her, American military personnel came to the island, which ensured a small economic boom. The base was abandoned under the Allende government .

Easter Island's gradual development towards independence began with the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet . Pinochet had developed a special benevolence for Easter Island. He was the first Chilean president to visit the island in 1974 and he returned twice, in 1980 and 1987. Significant resources were invested in infrastructure improvements during his reign, and in 1984 he appointed the first ethnic Rapanui, US-trained archaeologist Sergio Rapu, governor of Easter Island.

In 1989 the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main organized a trend-setting exhibition in which some of the relics of Easter Island culture scattered all over the world were brought together for the first time.

In 1994 Easter Island was produced by the film Rapa Nui - Rebellion in Paradise . a. by Hollywood star Kevin Costner , attracted worldwide public attention. The film shows, embedded in many landscape shots of the island, in a dramatic exaggeration typical of a feature film, the establishment of the moai, the encroachment of humans on nature and the associated negative consequences. Another film project, a soap opera by Chile's national television station Televisión Nacional de Chile with the title: "Iorana, Bienvenido al Amor", made Easter Island in Chile famous. Since it was broadcast in 1997/98 (with several repetitions), the number of Chilean tourists has multiplied.

Arts and Culture

The residents of Easter Island have made objects out of both stone and wood. The wood carvings that were preserved became part of the collections through purchase or exchange with the European expeditions.

The moai

The world-famous, colossal stone statues of Easter Island are called Moai . Father Sebastian Englert numbered and cataloged 638 statues, the Archaeological Survey and Statue Project from 1969 to 1976 found 887, but it was probably originally over 1000.

Despite extensive research, its real purpose and the exact time of its construction are still debated among experts. Today it is assumed that they represent famous chiefs or universally venerated ancestors who functioned as a link between this world and the other.

Rongorongo script

Rongorongo writing on a "speaking wood"

Easter Island culture is the only one in the Pacific to have its own script , the Rongorongo script . It is a pictorial script interspersed with phonetic symbols . It is written in lines in a variant of the bustrophedon : Each line is upside down compared to the previous one and is written in opposite directions. It is read from left to right and at the end of the line the board is rotated 180 degrees. The beginning is at the bottom left. The average one centimeter high characters show graphic symbols, bird men, people, animals, body parts, astronomical symbols and devices of daily use (boat, house, spear, stone ax, paddle). However, the picture font is not composed of pictograms that directly depict real objects. Thomas Barthel, probably the most profound connoisseur of Easter Island writing, considers it merely a reminder, i. That is, key terms are shown around which words and sentences from memory are to be added.

The archaeologist Kenneth P. Emory of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii takes a completely different view. From the fact that the few surviving Rongorongo tablets were verifiably found between 1722 and 1868, he draws the conclusion that the writing is merely an imitation of European written documents.

The complete decipherment of the Easter Island script has long been considered an unsolved problem, especially since the script culture in the South Sea region has no parallels. Only the systematic comparison with calendar knowledge and the inclusion of oral traditions brought the first approaches to the interpretation of the content. Thomas Barthel already suspected, at least in part , a lunar calendar in a tablet called Tablet Mamari (today in the archive of the Congregazione dei SS Cuori in Grottaferrata near Rome ) , as lines 6 to 9 on the front show a striking number of astronomical signs and moon symbols. This view has since been confirmed.

Worldwide only 25 authentic written documents are known on wooden boards, the Rongorongo boards, but also on other cult objects (Rei-Miro in London, Vogelmann in New York and ceremonial staff in Santiago de Chile). The preserved Rongorongo tablets are mainly carved from Toromiro wood. The characters were probably engraved with obsidian splinters or shark teeth , Kenneth P. Emory claims, with iron tools of European origin. The tablets are now scattered across museums and collections around the world.

The attempts at interpretation are innumerable, especially since lay researchers have tried them. The serious explanations for the recorded texts range from genealogies to ritual chants. So far, however, it has still not been possible to translate the texts line by line.

Orongo and the Vogelmann cult

View of Motu Nui from Orongo with Vogelmann petroglyphs in the foreground
Makemake motif in Orongo

On the slope of the Rano Kao , dangerously close to a 300 meter cliff, are the famous Orongo petroglyphs . The main motif is that of the bird man (Polynesian: Tangata Manu), a hybrid of man and frigate bird . The cult around the bird man gained increasing importance from around 1500 AD. The reasons for turning away from the old religion of ancestor worship, which ultimately also resulted in the subsequent overthrow of the Moais, are unknown. The archaeologist Georgia Lee, editor of the Rapa Nui Journal, believes that this has to be linked to the seizure of power by a warrior caste as a result of ecological destruction. Others, for example Alfred Métraux, assume that ancestor worship and the Vogelmann cult existed in parallel for at least a while.

Every spring , young men swam from Orongo to the upstream Motu Nui to find the sooty tern's first egg ( Sterna fuscata ). Whoever was the first to bring back an undamaged egg was declared a bird man, presided over ritual sacrifices and enjoyed special privileges.

Vogelmannfiguren are common throughout the South Pacific ( Samoa , Sepik region in New Guinea ).

Another motif of the rock carvings in Orongo is Makemake , a mask-like face with large, owl-like eyes, which represents the creator god . There are also animal representations (birds, whales, sharks, turtles) and graphic motifs.

The Orongo cult site includes carefully built stone huts with a roof made of turf , which are not permanently inhabited, but only used for cultic purposes.


Rei Miro, drawing of the Geiseler expedition from 1882

Rei Miro is a wooden pectoral known only in the culture of Easter Island , mainly carved from Toromiro wood. It has a crescent moon shape, which can also be interpreted as a boat body. The two ends are often designed as human or animal heads with fine facial features. There are holes for a lanyard on the upper ends. Some pectorals are provided with characters. Rei Miro from Easter Island can be found in various museums around the world. Their meaning (cult object, jewelry or badge of rank) is unknown.

Ao and Rapa

Ao and Rapa are paddle-shaped ritual objects carved from wood, which were used as a badge of rank of high dignitaries, but also in ritual dances.

Cult caves

The volcanic origin of the island means that numerous caves and gaps have formed in the rock . The caves were used as places of worship, as proven by numerous rock paintings . The motifs have their origin predominantly in the Vogelmann cult. Thor Heyerdahl found numerous small stone sculptures with the most varied of motifs in the caves: depictions of birds, moais, head sculptures, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures through to depictions of sailing ships . The secret caves are assigned to individual families. The knowledge about this was passed on orally to specially selected members of the next generation. Bone finds show that the caves were also used as burial places, but probably only in the late period. According to the tradition of the islanders, the caves also served as places of refuge during the period of cultural decline and the subsequent civil wars. A cult cave with numerous rock carvings is often visited by tourists is Ana Kai Tangata, the so-called "ogre cave", near Mataveri on the west coast.

Easter Island today

View over Rano Kao to the south and further from Hanga Roa over the island to the north


Easter Island is one of eight provinces in the Chilean Región de Valparaíso ( Provincia de Isla de Pascua in Spanish ). Unlike most other departments of Chile, it is not further subdivided into municipalities, but corresponds to a municipality.


Mataveri International Airport
Hospital and ambulance in Hangaroa
The Avenida Atamu Tekena is the main street of Hangaroa

The Mataveri International Airport ( IATA airport code IPC) has been around since the 1950s. At that time the first plane landed on a makeshift strip of grass near Mataveri. In the 1960s, Chile recognized the importance of Easter Island as a stopover in a transpacific air network, not least from a military point of view. After plans for a new building near Anakena were rejected as too expensive, the grass runway in Mataveri was expanded and paved. The main purpose of the airfield operated by the Chilean Air Force , however, was to supply the American base. When the Mataveri airport was expanded by NASA as an emergency landing site for the space shuttles in 1984 , large-capacity aircraft could land there. This has led to a significant increase in tourism , which is now the island's main source of income. LATAM Airlines operates flights to and from Santiago de Chile several times a week , the flight takes a good four and a half hours. Twice a week there is a flight connection to and from Papeete in Tahiti , the flight takes around six hours.

A central water supply system with deep wells has existed since 1967; Until then, the population had to rely on the supplies in the crater lakes and groundwater seeping out from the coast . Properties in the outdoor area are also connected to the electricity supply network operated by diesel generators. Paved roads can be found in the immediate area of ​​Hanga Roa and Mataveri. The stretches from Hanga Roa to Anakena Beach and along the south coast to the Poike Peninsula are now paved . All streets in Hangaroa have a name, but they are not given on street signs. The only petrol station is near the airport, but there is no car dealer. There is also no public transport. Some taxis, rental cars, and rental bikes are available. Some of the local families keep horses, which are used as an everyday means of transport, or ride motorbikes.

At the five schools in Hangaroa, all educational qualifications up to the university entrance qualification ( Enseñanza Media , corresponds to the German Abitur and the Austrian / Swiss Matura ) can be obtained. However, a technical or university degree is only possible on the mainland. In one of the primary schools, there is a UNESCO-supported school trial of bilingual lessons with Rapa Nui and Spanish. The problem is that there is no print shop on Rapa Nui - all printed products on Rapa Nui have to be printed on the Chilean mainland, which makes production considerably more expensive.

Health care is far better than in other remote regions of Chile. In 1964 a Canadian Scientific Commission (Medical Expedition to Easter Island - METEI) came to Easter Island on behalf of the UN to conduct a pilot project to investigate the relationship between heredity, the environment and disease. When she left the island in 1964, the modern medical facilities housed in some containers were left behind. They formed the basis for health care on the island according to modern standards. In 1975 the small hospital building was built, which today houses a doctor, a dentist, a midwife and a nursing service. An ambulance is also stationed there. An ophthalmologist comes regularly from mainland Chile and holds consultations.

The further infrastructure with church, post office, bank, pharmacy, small shops, some small supermarkets, snack bars and restaurants has improved considerably since the 1960s, not least to satisfy the needs of tourism. Most of the shops are on Avenida Atamu Tekena , the main street of the village. Fresh fish is sold at the port in the morning, but the selection and quantity offered are limited. Stalls have been set up in front of some of the houses where locals sell home-grown fruit and vegetables. Satellite phone , internet and e-mails are a matter of course. There is now even a discotheque for the younger islanders.


It is estimated that Easter Island had around 10,000 inhabitants at the time of the cultural bloom in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result of the ecological catastrophe caused by humans, the shortage of food and armed conflicts, this number was reduced to around 2000 to 3000 before the arrival of the Europeans. The deportation as forced laborers to Peru reduced the population to about 900 in 1868, and entrained by the few returnees diseases led to a further population decline.

The exploitation of the island by the intensive sheep breeding of a European consortium resulted in the population being pushed back to a settlement area with little extension in the northwest of the island. This conflict of interest led 168 residents to emigrate in 1871 with the help of missionaries . In 1877 the population was only 111. After that, the population slowly recovered. In 1888, the year of the annexation by Chile, 178 inhabitants were counted.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a widespread desire - especially among the young population - to leave the island. Appropriate efforts were however prevented by the Chilean military administration. It was not until the 1950s that living conditions improved, and the population also increased. In 1960 there were already over 1000 inhabitants.

From 1988 to 2002 the population increased from 1938 to 3791. The increase between 2002 and 2012 is one of the highest in Chile at over 54%. The significant increase within a few years is mainly due to immigration from mainland Chile. As a result, the demographic composition of the population changes to the detriment of the Polynesian natives , the Rapanui.

In 1982 70% of the population were Rapanui, in 2002 their share was only 60%. 39% were of the European type (mostly temporary residents such as administrative officials, military personnel, scientists and their families) and one percent were other.

In the last few decades there was not only immigration. Easter Island residents have also emigrated to the mainland . The 2002 census found that 2,269 Rapanui were living outside of Easter Island in Chile.

In 2012, 5806 people lived on Easter Island, the population density was 36 people per square kilometer. In 2017, according to the census, 7,750 people lived there.

In the middle of the 19th century there were still six settlements: Anakena, Tongariki, Vaihu, Vinapu, Mataveri and Hanga Roa. Today the residents are concentrated in the villages of Hanga Roa and Mataveri in the southwest, which have now grown together in such a way that they are regarded as one settlement. There are only a few scattered settlements in the remaining regions of the island .

The official language is Spanish , although linguistic varieties are spoken in everyday life that contain elements of both Spanish and the indigenous language RapanuiSpanish on Easter Island .


Significant tourism has only existed since 1967, when the first passenger plane landed on the island. Even today, Easter Island can only be reached by plane with the airline LATAM Airlines from Santiago de Chile or Tahiti . However, the number of tourists is still very low compared to other holiday islands. In 2018, the Chilean government reduced the maximum length of stay for tourists and non-residents from 90 to 30 days, justifying this with the protection of the island and its limited resources.

Easter Island has only one port for small boats. There is no regular boat connection. Cruise ships lie in the roadstead in front of Hanga Roa . The passengers are disembarked, which is often not pleasant given the consistently rough seas.

The accommodation of tourists ranges from private quarters to hotels, the comfort of which corresponds roughly to the three-star category (according to Central European standards). However, the majority of tourists only stay on the island for two or three days as part of round trips. The high price level is due to the fact that everything - with the exception of some agricultural products - has to be imported from the mainland at high prices.

Since the population lives mainly from tourism today, there are knowledgeable local guides for all common languages, including German . The sights can be reached by off-road vehicle , on horseback and, for experienced hikers, on foot.

The Anakenastrand with the Ahu Ature Huki (foreground) and the Ahu Nau Nau (background)
  • The Rano Raraku , the "birthplace" of the Moai, is probably the most interesting point on the island for tourists. On the slopes of the volcano and around the crater lake stand or lie over 300 statues of different sizes and different stages of production. Not far from there is the Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial platform in Polynesia with 15 erected statues of impressive size.
  • At Anakena is the only significant beach on the island of fine, white coral sand. Bathing is possible here. Picnics are organized for tourists in the coconut grove . There are two interesting ceremonial platforms at Anakena, the Ahu Naunau and the Ahu Ature Huki. A smaller moai is built into the Ahu Naunau, recycled, so to speak.
  • Te Pito o te Henua (The Navel of the World) (actually: Te Pito Kura - the red navel) is a ceremonial complex around a spherical stone, which is believed to be of natural origin. From esoteric the place unusual properties are attributed. Christian Walter, an anthropologist living on the island , says the facility was built in the 1960s for gullible tourists. In fact, Thor Heyerdahl made no mention of the site, despite having carried out extensive archaeological studies nearby. Others claim that the stone ball is identical to the stone that Hotu Matua brought from his home island of Hiva to Easter Island. At the Ahu Tongariki, another stone ball - but it can be proven that it was worked by humans - was excavated.
  • From the rim of the Rano Kao crater there is a spectacular view of the three Motus off the southwest coast . The Orongo ceremonial complex is located directly there .
  • Puna Pau in the west is the quarry on the slope of a secondary volcano of the Rano Kao, in which the head attachments of the Moai were made from red volcanic slag.
  • The Museo Antropologico Padre Sebastian Englert , located a little outside of Mataveri, is modestly equipped in comparison to many other ethnological museums in Europe or America. Nevertheless, the visit is recommended because of the original eye of a Moai found in 1978 at Anakena.


Easter Island has been the backdrop for a number of films. In episode 42 Chile and Easter Island (first broadcast on January 1, 2002) of the ZDF TV series Das Traumschiff , which has been produced since 1981 based on an idea by Wolfgang Rademann , Easter Island is the theme. The film Rapa Nui by Kevin Reynolds addresses one of the legends.

The German composer Valentin Ruckebier wrote the ballet suite Easter Island , the words from the Rapanui set to music.

See also

  • Rapa Iti (Pacific island with a similarly high degree of isolation and a similar settlement history)


  • William Churchill: Easter Island: The Rapanui Speech and the Peopling of Southeast Polynesia. Washington 1912, ( online )
  • Karlo Huke Atán: Oral traditions of Easter Island. A message from the Maoris from Rapa Nui. Freiburg / Cologne 1999, ISBN 3-932248-08-2 (sagas and myths of Easter Island).
  • Thomas Barthel: Basics for deciphering the Easter Island script. Cram, de Gruyter, Hamburg 1958 (basic work on Easter Island script).
  • Sebastian Englert: The first Christian century on Easter Island (1864–1964). Newly published by Karl Kohut. With an ethnological introduction by Horst Cain, a sketch of Sebastian Englert's life by Ludwig B. Riedl and a mission-theological epilogue by Johannes Meier. Frankfurt am Main 1996, ISBN 3-89354-973-0 (Mission history).
  • Heide-Margaret Esen-Baur: Investigations into the Vogelmann cult on Easter Island. Wiesbaden 1983, ISBN 3-515-04062-5 ( dissertation on the Vogelmann cult and the Orongo cult site).
  • Heide-Margaret Esen-Baur: 1500 years of Easter Island culture - treasures from the land of Hotu Matua. Exhibition organized by the German-Ibero-American Society Frankfurt am Main, April 5 to September 3, 1989. Mainz am Rhein 1989, ISBN 3-8053-1079-X (catalog for the exhibition in the Senckenberg Nature Museum with scientific information).
  • Fritz Felbermayer: Legends and traditions of Easter Island. Carl, Nuremberg 1971 (sagas and myths of Easter Island).
  • Hermann Fischer: Shadows on Easter Island - a plea for a forgotten people. Oldenburg 1998, ISBN 3-8142-0588-X (Modern History).
  • Thor Heyerdahl: Aku-Aku. The secret of Easter Island. Frankfurt am Main / Berlin / Vienna 1974, ISBN 3-550-06863-8 (popular science work, out of date).
  • Walter Knoche: Easter Island. The Chilean Easter Island Expedition of 1911. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2015, ISBN 978-3-447-10478-4 (annotated new edition).
  • Henri Lavachery: Île de Pâques. Une expédition belge en 1934. Grasset, 1935, OCLC 9053933 (report of the Belgian-French Easter Island expedition of 1934).
  • Alfred Métraux: Ethnology de l'île de Pâques. 1935 (basic work on ethnology).
    • Alfred Métraux: The Easter Island. Stuttgart 1957 (German-language, abridged version of the basic work by Alfred Métraux: L'île de Pâques ).
  • Anne Reichardt, Ingo Reichardt : Easter Island. A travelguide. Heidelberg 2000, ISBN 3-925064-27-3 .
  • Anne Reichardt, Ingo Reichardt: Easter Island - Destination IPC - Impressions and travel guides, illustrated book. Publisher presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2016, Berlin 2017, ISBN 978-3-7418-3369-4 .
  • Peter Burghardt: The center of the world. You can hardly live more remote than on Easter Island. Nevertheless, its residents, the Rapa Nui, would like to be more independent. About a minor revolt in the Pacific Ocean. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung. No. 299, December 30, 2014, Page Three.
  • Robert W. Williamson: The social and political systems of central Polynesia. 3 volumes. Cambridge 1924 ( online / commons ).
  • The Voyage of Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez to Easter Island 1770-1. 1903. Digitized version (PDF)

Web links

Wiktionary: Easter Island  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Easter Island  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikimedia Atlas: Easter Island  - geographical and historical maps

Individual evidence

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This version was added to the list of excellent articles on April 8, 2005 .